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Scrap wrangling for modern quilters

Ah the scrap pile . . . that ever-growing, ever-dreaded bin. Some quilters love the scrappy look and have no issues corralling their scraps, but I find, more often than not, modern quilters struggle with their scraps, myself included. Too many fabrics triggers that primal feeling of overwhelm that makes you want to run and hide. Too much chaos, not enough control.

So what do you do?

Throw them out? "What a waste!"

Let the pile get bigger until it swallows your sewing room? "That's even worse!"

Use them? "But I don't want to make ugly quilts!"

Here's how I go about organizing my scrap pile to make beautiful, non-chaotic, modern scrappy quilts.


  1. The rules

  2. Don't use the entire scrap pile in one quilt

  3. Don't mix undertones

  4. Treat each scrap as a "color"

  5. The process

The rules

Before we get started, there are a few simple rules that are helpful to ensure beautiful scrappy quilts. If scrappy comes naturally to you, you're probably observing these rules without realizing it.

Rule 1: Don't use the entire scrap pile in one quilt

This might seem self-explanatory, but it needs to be said. Aside from most of our scrap piles being too big for a single quilt, not all fabrics work together (even if you love each individual fabric separately). So don't try to force yourself to use everything in your scrap pile all in the same project. By being picky, you will be much happier with the final result.

Rule 2: Don't mix undertones

Undertones are present in every color and therefore every fabric. An undertone is merely a secondary color that cants the main color towards another. These undertones can take on a variety of different colors (red, purple, beige, yellow, blue, etc.) Think about a black ink that has a red undertone vs. one that has a blue undertone. They're both black, but they look very different.

Undertones are most obvious in neutral fabrics. Here are two gray fabrics. One has a warm undertone, the other has a cool undertone. They don't really look great together which is why many successful scrappy quilts that don't look too chaotic, stick with a neutral color that all shares the same undertone, rather than mixing them.

In colored fabrics, undertones appear as "muddiness" in the color. Here are two yellow fabrics. One appears bright and clear while the other is more muted and, well, muddy-looking (due to the main color being mixed with gray). Here again, we don't want to mix fabrics with muddy undertones with those that are very clear because they look a little off by contrast. Either variety is fine on its own, but when you put them together, it's just too much. However, most people are drawn to relatively muddy or relatively clear colors so you will likely find that the vast majority of your stash is either muddy or clear making this less of an issue than you might expect.

With both neutrals and colors, it is OK to mix undertone types in different colors (a muddy orange with a clear yellow, for instance), you just don't want to do it within the same color in the same quilt because the contrast will stick out like a sore thumb.

Rule 3: Treat each scrap as a "color"

When trying to assess your scrap pile and decide which to use for a certain project, it's best to treat each scrap according to its main color. Even if it's a print, each fabric will read as one color or another. For instance, here are two fabrics that both have pink, peach, and yellow in them. However, the first one is distinctly a pink print while the other is distinctly a red print.

If you try to take into account the secondary colors, you'll drive yourself nuts so we're only going to concern ourselves with the main color. Once you've decided what the main color is, we're going to treat all of those fabrics within a color as equivalent. All of the orange prints are just orange and can be used interchangeably, etc

One more note, as you decide what the main color of each fabric is, you might be tempted to second guess yourself. Use this as an exercise in self-control; once you've make a decision, don't mess with it. Even if it feels wrong later, LEAVE IT ALONE. With color, often your subconscious has categorized it before your brain catches up so try to decide quicky and don't let your brain get in the way. Your first choice is your subconscious speaking and it's usually the most correct. This isn't meant to be a time-consuming process and "wrong" choices won't have that much of an impact later anyways.

The process

OK, now that we've got the rules out of the way, how do you actually go about organizing your scraps for a project?

Step 1: What colors are you using?

If you're following a pattern, designed for scrappy or not, it will list a quantity of colors or fabrics that are needed. Instead of thinking about specific fabrics here, designate each "fabric" in the pattern as a color and decide what colors you want to use now. For instance, I might choose pink, gray, and orange. These can be as specific or as general as you want. Naturally, these choices should also be guided by the colors that you have in your scrap bin.

If you have a solids color card, you might pull out the chips that most closely match the colors you want and use them as a reference as you sort your scraps.

If you're converting a pattern that wasn't intended to be scrappy, try to choose one that only has a few fabrics, I like to stick to no more than 4. Going scrappy naturally adds more busyness to the quilt so too many colors, in addition to scrappy, get's out of hand quickly. Alternatively, choose just one fabric to be scrappy and use yardage for the rest to tone down the chaos.

Step 2: Sort your scraps

Now is the time to pull out your scrap bin. Dump everything out and begin sorting each piece into piles: (1) one pile for each color you need (pink, gray, and orange, in my case) and (2) one pile for all the other colors that you're not going to be using this time around. This pile goes back in the bin for another quilt.

Step 4: Weed out the mixed undertones

Now that you have all your scraps sorted into each color that you're going to use, go through each pile individually and pull out any that are of a mixed undertone. For neutrals, this means sorting the color into two piles: (1) a warm undertone pile and (2) a cool undertone pile. You can use either pile, but make sure you separate them to prevent yourself from having mixed undertones in your project if you're trying to avoid too much busyness. You can do this quickly by just laying out the whole pile and removing anything that looks out of place.

Which fabric sticks out here?

There, much better! There are still some grays in the mix that are slightly warmer, but that's OK. The important thing is that none of them stick out like a sore thumb anymore. The more fabrics you have, the less important it is to make sure all of them share the same undertone . . . but the more busy and chaotic your finished quilt will look.

For non-neutrals, you'll be separating out muddy tones from clear tones within a color. Again, either type is fine, just try not to mix them. Here again, you don't necessarily need to go through each individual scrap. Just lay them all out and remove anything your brain is telling you looks out of place.

Did we pick the same one? The darker fabric on the far left is glaring at me!

Step 5: Remove incompatible sizes

For the design you are making, take a look at the cutting diagrams. It should list individual cuts that are needed to make the design. Make note of the average cut size needed. Is it generally large (long strips or 10" squares) or do small cuts work? If there are restrictions on the sizes of scraps you can use, remove those sizes from your reduced pile now so that they don't factor into the final step. Small cuts can always be made from larger pieces, but it's difficult to use small scraps for large pieces (but that's a topic for another time).

Step 6: Figure out how much fabric you have

This is the final step for a reason, you don't want to be tempted to add in fabrics with mixed undertones just so that you have enough scraps for a particular project. Once you've narrowed down your viable scrap pile, we need to figure out how much fabric you have and if it is enough for the design in question. Most quilt patterns will list a yardage requirement for each fabric. You can estimate yardage easily if you have mostly fat quarter-sized scraps, but if they're random cuts, like most scrap piles, that's not necessarily helpful.

This is where I enlist the help of a scale. I keep a cheap kitchen scale in my house for measuring baking ingredients, but it's worth purchasing one if you're serious about using up your scrap pile.

1 yard of fabric equates to approximately 6 ounces (170 grams). This can vary depending on the thickness and width of your yardage, but it's a good rule of thumb. I usually account for 7 ounces (198 grams) per yard to account for the fact that I might have to cut down pieces and not every scrap is a compatible size, but this gives me a good ballpark range.

I'll take the yardage requirement from my pattern and multiply it by 7 ounces to get the total weight of fabric that I need.

1 1/2 yards x 7 ounces = 10.5 ounces (Total required)

Then, I dump each of my "color" scrap piles into a bowl (after I've tared or zeroed the bowl weight so that I'm just measuring the fabric weight) to see if their total weight at least meets that number. If it does, BINGO! I'm ready to start sewing. If it doesn't, I'll supplement my pile with a couple of fat quarters to get me up to that total weight. Each fat quarter is approximately 1.5 ounces of fabric. The rules for which fat quarters I can use are the same as for sorting scraps: no mixed undertones, treat each one as a single color.

Wrapping it up

Now you're ready to sew. Once the sorting and weighing is out of the way, you can proceed with the quilt design just as you normally would. Treat your scraps just like you would regular yardage.

As you work through the project (especially if you step away from it for a while and then come back to it), you might be tempted to add or remove scraps as you go.

RESIST this urge!

You chose the scraps for a reason when all the fabrics were piled together. If you liked them together then, you'll like them in the finished quilt, but sometimes our brains can play tricks on us when we pull an individual piece out of the context of the rest of the fabric. Just trust yourself and the process. It will all work out, I promise!

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